Women Unite for Progressive ‘Bawana’ Resettlement Site

Bawana 2004: “It was only jungle. There were no lights. Fights would break out between the re-located communities and the local people because we had suddenly been forced to live together. The ration shops gave out some provisions once a week. Roads were non-existent. We got our water by trudging long distances and open defecation was common.”

Bawana 2011: “We are working to make Bawana a livable colony. There are five to six streetlights in every lane. Rations are available every day of the month. Many public conveniences have become operational. We get piped water, although the pipes run next to the sewers. The sanitation workers, who never made an appearance earlier, now come to pick up garbage and clean the area.”

This then-and-now picture comes straight from Bateri Devi and Anita, respectively, two of the oldest residents of Bawana, a resettlement site, lying on Delhi’s north-west margins, home to around 1,30,000 people.

Make no mistake. Bawana does not make for a congenial living environment even today. Its roads disappear into large puddles. Its drains constantly overflow. Garbage lies everywhere and people pick their way through it. But the Bawana of today is still a considerably improved version to what it was in 2004, when the former residents of a slew of shanty towns in the heart of Delhi were literally dumped here after court-ruled eviction drives.

Sarita Baloni, an activist with the Delhi-based women’s resource Jagori group, has been coming to Bawana for the last six years. She recalls, “Resettlement here took place in 2004-2005, and each family was given three bamboo poles and two ‘chatais’ (mat) to start life again here. There were no taps, electricity, nothing. By 2005, one could see water points coming up; streetlights with bulbs. Men would leave in search of livelihood. Most of them were forced into pulling rickshaws or vending vegetables because they had lost their factory jobs in the city while the women would remain behind. When we talked to them about gender rights, they would say, ‘We don’t even have food. How will gender rights help us?'”

The women Sarita interacts with now no longer say this. They have realised the importance of articulating their rights as women and as citizens. In 2009, Jagori collaborated with Women in Cities International (WICI) for the Action Research Project on Women’s Rights and Access to Water and Sanitation in Asian Cities. The project was initiated to assess the gender gaps in the public provisioning for water, sanitation, drainage, solid waste management and electricity, and study the impact of this on women’s safety and security.

Sitting in a small room in their neighbourhood, elderly Bateri Devi and Satyabhama, along with middle-aged Anita, Vimla and others are eager to share their experiences. Among them is a sprinkling of teenagers too. Many of whom like Nafisa and Mehmooda come from conservative families that normally frown on girls participating in public meetings.

Bateri begins, “We wanted to live a better life. Who doesn’t? So when the Jagori ‘didis’ (sisters) gave us a plan, we began our journey of change.” Sarita adds, “In this project, we followed the Women’s Safety Audit approach to assess the gaps in the public provisioning for water, sanitation, solid waste management and electricity, especially when it came to women.”

It started with a public meeting in October 2009 where people came forward to talk about the community’s problems. That conversation created the realisation within the community that something needed to be done about their living environment.

This led to a resource mapping exercise, done in five blocks with the help of a simple questionnaire. The findings were an eye-opener: There were no latches on the doors of the public toilets; the toilets were always filthy and women felt unsafe using them because there were groups of men loitering nearby. There were general insights. It was found that since the taps were located near the drains water was getting contaminated, which was a huge health hazard.

“We did the survey so that Jagori, as a community partner, could understand the ground realities better, while the community gained clarity on what issues they wanted to tackle,” explains Sarita.

The survey led to a team building exercise. Kailash, who was in Class XII when his family came to Bawana and is now working at the Jagori centre in Bawana, says, “Building a team was important so that we could move beyond identifying problems to initiating action. We wanted to interact with the women to discuss every detail and chalk out a plan.” That’s how the vital Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) process started.

Vimla hosted one of the very first FDGs at her home. She recalls, “I called 15 women to discuss the water, sanitation and garbage disposal problems. Everyone took time out to come and enumerate the issues that affected them personally. We could feel the impact of these sessions. The women became vocal in demanding their rights.” Their message was clear: Things could no longer continue the way they were. At an individual level, many kept an eye on garbage collectors. Others identified missing streetlights and non-functional toilets. “The one immediate impact of this was that the toilets that had been locked for long were opened and work on the under-construction toilets was completed in no time,” remarks Sarita.

These early successes only made the women more determined. Streamlining garbage disposal was next on the agenda. Anita elaborates, “We called a meeting with the area sanitation workers. But before we went we took photographs of places where garbage was strewn and drains were overflowing. We showed these to them and told them to take action. Today, at least they try and come on time to pick up the garbage. On our part, we dispose our garbage at one place – usually a designated spot at the end of each lane – from where it can be collected.”

Safety audit walks, with the involvement of the local youth, took this work forward. Rizwan, a youth group member who wants to become a mechanical engineer, has been involved in it. He says, “Before going on these walks, we map out the route that includes spots where women have faced threats. We then set out with officials in groups of three or four. On one occasion, the sanitation workers accompanying us decided to clean up as we went along, and we also decided on places where dustbins were to be placed.”

The last two years have seen four safety audits in Bawana. Each time improvements have been noted. Rizwan provides an example, “The first audit had revealed that having no streetlights had an adverse impact of the mobility of girls. Now, thanks to working streetlights and increased police patrolling, girls here feel safer and even their access to toilets has improved.”

But safety audits apart, the capacity building workshops that were held from July to October 2010 have also given much power to the women. They’ve been on field visits to other resettlement colonies to observe and learn from the work done there. Bateri is impressed with the ‘safai’ (cleanliness) the women of Savada Ghevra in Delhi have maintained.

Experts have also introduced them to diverse subjects like women’s reproductive health and hygiene, budgeting and local governance. Armed with all this knowledge, the women have gained the confidence to put across their issues succinctly to the local MLA or counsellor – who no longer ignore them.

The process of eviction and resettlement may have pushed thousands off the map of cities but one can never underestimate the power of progressive women. There’s a lesson to be learnt from Bawana and Prabha Khosla, an external consultant for the Jagori, puts it this way: “Future resettlement plans need to incorporate the insights gained from experiences like this.”

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